James Aiken is a filmmaker who’s looking to explore the connection between humanity and nature, specifically by spending time with people who live quietly in tune with their naturally surroundings. Perhaps no two places are more natural and isolated than Iceland and Greenland. He’s been investigating these lands through personal projects and he just finished up his second, called “Home Ground.” Check out the short and then read more about why and how he made it in our interview below.
Why Iceland and Greenland?
I think there is so much to be said about Iceland and Greenland, and as a filmmaker there are unlimited stories and people that make a project rich. As these are personal projects its important for me to have a rewarding experience outside of the film making, and being amongst these truly wild places is definitely food for the soul!
I’m really inspired by people who live in closeness to nature, and very often they live the quietest lives. I think in my personal projects “Home Ground” and “Almost Arctic”, I’m trying to show these peoples’ stories to the world without any ulterior motive.
I find the history of the North Atlantic fascinating. Trying to comprehend how these places were settled, 1,000 years ago, in wooden boats with primitive navigation is beyond our comprehension. It’s just such a beautiful story that european culture extended to Iceland but could never really gain a foothold on Greenland. The indigenous Greenlanders, who had accessed the area from the U.S. and Canada, lived quite successfully in the harsh Greenland environment. And so these two cultures remained separate, divided by only 400 miles of ocean, which, when looking at Polynesian migration, is only a short hop.
I really love these areas, and I believe that if we look at these people who live quiet, happy lives in tune with their surroundings, we can begin to understand how we must adapt our own, far more urban and consumption-based lives into a more sustainable and rewarding lifestyle.
Goddamn the landscapes are beautiful. As a filmmaker, are there any challenges with shooting a landscape so rich and textured?
Everywhere you go there are beautiful things to capture in that part of the world so you have to be selective with what you shoot. There are a million icebergs in the region so you have to get a few good shots of icebergs and then say right, that’s it, icebergs done. Otherwise you’re just filling hard drives with essentially the same thing.
How did you come to be in contact with the people you interviewed?
During the period that I was in Iceland filming the “Almost Arctic” film I met a lot of people around the town of Isafjordur, including Siggi the captain of the Aurora. He invited us round to his house for dinner, traditional Icelandic roast puffin, to hear about our trip. He is a pretty inspiring guy, very well traveled, and we spent the night hearing stories of his early life in the West Fjords and then his boat, and his trips to Greenland. I mentioned that I grew up sailing and would love to crew if the chance arose.
That opportunity came in September, when Siggi needed some crew to sail the boat back from the east coast of Greenland after a summer of sailing tours there. He invited Vidar, another friend from Isafjordur, and me to fly to Kulusuk, and sail first, north, up the coast to the narrowest crossing point and then for the passage across the denmark Straights to Iceland.
It’s amazing, really, and if you read any book about the area, it says to leave this area by the end of August as the autumnal storms are particularly violent here, not to mention how dangerous moving through the ice can be in anything but calm conditions, but Siggi was confident that crossing in mid-September was possible if you pick your moment. There were two storms brewing as we planned to embark but in a demonstration of meteorological understanding and intuition, we threaded our way between them back to Iceland.
I only had a few hours with Dines, the local Greenlander as we were due to sail north almost as soon as Vidar and I had arrived. He was just passing through Kulusuk where we had landed, and after only an hour in the country I was whipping through the fjords in his small boat, butchering seals to feed to his sled dogs and sampling muktak, a local delicacy that is as rich in vitamin C as an orange. It’s one of the reasons people managed to survive here and I was really honored to share some with Dines.
Going into it, did you know what kind of story you were looking to tell or did it evolve as you were shooting?
I think this project was really defined as much by the things that I couldn’t capture as by those moments I could. On one of our night shifts during the crossing we had a particularly moving experience. It was about four in the morning and brutally cold with dark skies overhead. A gap in the cloud developed and we could see the aurora developing behind. At this moment Vidar, another crew member, noticed phosphorescence being disturbed by the passing swell. For the next ten minutes we were treated to an almost full arctic light show, aurora overhead and phosphorescence below, the whole world dancing green. It was unreal, something I will never forget.
To follow James Aiken’s work, follow him on Instagram @james_aiken, or on Tumblr at http://jamesaikenfilm.tumblr.com/.